The power of PaaS

As agencies seek to modernize, can platforms strike a better balance between standardization and productivity?

cloud computing
 

In the federal government’s multiyear march to the cloud, platform as a service has often been something of the mushy middle. The early emphasis on data center consolidation made infrastructure as a service an obvious starting point, while tools ranging from Slack to ArcGIS to Office 365 helped agencies appreciate the potential of software as a service.

But with PaaS, which provides a complete development and deployment environment on top of cloud infrastructure, the value proposition is more complicated. 

Part of the problem is that PaaS appeals to the IT professional. Avoiding the hassle of buying and managing software licenses and middleware and providing a platform for the complete web application life cycle are no small accomplishments, but the immediate value to mission owners or top agency leaders is not easy to convey. 

Now, however, the growing emphasis on shared services and rethinking business processes is putting PaaS in the spotlight. As Matt Lira, special assistant to the president for innovation policy, told FCW, the goal is not simply to craft one-off solutions, but “to institutionalize the change capacity for the long term.”

Platforms, when used properly, can provide that balance between mission-driven productivity and scalable standardization. 

For Francisco Salguero, a deputy CIO at the Agriculture Department, it all comes down to empowering users. “Whether you’re doing click-to-code from the development perspective or letting the end user produce new and fancy reports, they don’t necessarily need to go to IT or the back office” to get what they need, he said at a May 17 event hosted by FCW. 

Todd Schroeder, vice president of government digital strategy at Salesforce, agreed. “I think we’re seeing a big shift right now of putting the customer at the center of what we do,” he said at the same event, adding that “customer” can mean a citizen, state agency, federal employee or other partner. 

“We’re getting smarter about what worked, what hasn’t worked and about new models that are coming to bear,” Schroeder said, adding that PaaS-based models “offer different benefits in terms of control versus productivity.” 

Those models vary widely because PaaS can encompass a range of solutions from development frameworks to content management to analytics and business intelligence. There are 31 approved PaaS solutions in the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program’s marketplace, including the General Services Administration’s Cloud.gov. At a broad level, however, the benefits boil down to less coding time, a greater ability to tailor through configuration instead of customization, and the outsourcing of basic technical and operational support.

With Cloud.gov, for example, shouldering a significant portion of security compliance obligations is a key part of the value proposition. “One of the reasons we run Cloud.gov is because we want to take all that burden…so that you can focus on your mission,” a General Services Administration official told FCW in a recent background conversation. 

An official from another agency, who took part in the same discussion, noted that the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has taken a similar approach, saying that building a PaaS solution to help with compliance could be extremely useful.

Salguero and Schroeder agreed that the compliance benefits of PaaS can be substantial — both technically and politically. 

“These platforms position agencies to think about how they can deliver compliance and policy not through paper, but through [the platforms] themselves,” Schroeder said. “That’s a lot of value right there in terms of cost, complexity and time to mission.” And bringing that value gives IT teams the opportunity to form new relationships and partnerships with business leaders and further advance modernization efforts. 

“As you do compliance in a platform world,” he added, “it offers the opportunity to think about what you used do to at the governance table…and think about how you can not have to talk about these things anymore.” 

Salguero stressed, however, that governance becomes even more important in a PaaS-accelerated environment. “The speed of things comes so much faster — how do you control that?” he said. Although PaaS is intended to bring greater consistency and manageability to IT portfolios, it also makes it easy to create more one-off solutions.

“Without governance, you’re going to go off and do it based on what that business unit wants,” he said. “And I don’t want to build that five times. I want to build it once and leverage it. “ 

For Salguero, the efforts to leverage PaaS dovetail with USDA’s larger reorganization. The department has gone from having 22 component-specific CIOs to nine deputy CIOs focused on specific mission areas. 

“We’re [no longer] talking about agencies,” he said. “We’re talking about a mission area…and then how can we drive solutions to what they need to deliver on that mission. With platforms, it changes the conversations from the very waterfall approach [where mission owners would craft detailed specifications in advance] to where we’re telling developers, ‘Hey, I want this red button right here.’”

That change has also increased the tempo. “It’s no longer going to take me three weeks to develop that red button,” he said. “It’s going to take two minutes. Now I’ve got extra weeks…where we can focus on the mission.” 

PaaS can go beyond the agile DevOps model to put advanced and configurable tools directly in the hands of end users. Those click-to-code or no-code approaches, however, require a significant culture shift on the part of the users and the IT shops that provide the platforms. 

Salguero said USDA is taking a hybrid approach and in most cases is still using PaaS to build solutions that suit mission owners’ needs while handing over the toolbox in a few situations. Most of the latter examples are in the new Centers of Excellence, where USDA is figuring out “the framework of how we want to do this in other mission areas going forward.” 

Schroeder sees a similar story at other agencies. “There are a number of different models, and I think there should be,” he said, adding that not all business units want to take hands-on ownership of their tools. “But the advent of these platforms puts us in a position to add value in ways we’ve never been able to before.”

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